Growing Up in Hebrew - in Manhattan

My daughter chose a challenging way to push back against an American Jewish culture based only on translation from Hebrew sources: To speak to her son only in Hebrew.

Max, my only grandchild, had his first birthday recently. He lives with his parents in Manhattan and - trust me on this - he is perfect in every way. Since he was born, his mother, my daughter Adina, has spoken to him only in Hebrew. (Her husband talks to Max primarily in English.)

My daughter was surprised when I expressed some reservations about her decision to speak to her son only in Hebrew. Not only did she receive a day school education and not only have we studied traditional texts together since she was a child, but she knows that I have always attached special importance to Modern Hebrew. She has heard me talk many times about the fact that the revival of the Hebrew language as a spoken tongue may be the most extraordinary achievement of the Zionist movement. She has heard me discuss Eliezer Ben Yehuda and the language wars in the Land of Israel, and she knows the deep, visceral connection that I have to Hebrew in all its forms.

And this above all: She has heard me bemoan, over and over again, the failure of the Jewish Diaspora, and especially the American Jewish community, to teach Hebrew - spoken and written - to its children, and the potentially disastrous consequences of not doing so. A strong case can be made that no Diaspora community has ever done what American Jews are now trying to do, which is to build a vibrant Jewish life using almost exclusively translated Hebrew sources. (Some scholars argue that Alexandria Jews did this in antiquity but this is debatable.) And my daughter has also heard me insist that fatalism about teaching Hebrew is misplaced. If our children can learn passable Spanish, or in my day French, in a few years of high school study, why can’t American Jews teach passable Hebrew to these same kids?

Why then my reservations about my daughter’s decision? I think that I feared it would be too difficult. While she attended day school for 13 years and has a wonderful mastery of text, her school, like almost all American day schools, did not do a very good job in teaching spoken Hebrew. And while she has been to Israel many times, her visits have been relatively short and she has never lived there for an extended period. Would she know how to say “baby formula,” “jungle gym,” and “button up your snow suit?” Would she know whether the word for “thumb” in Modern Hebrew is “bohen” from the Tanakh or “agudal” from the Talmud? (These are all things that I did not know.)

When I told her about my concerns, she was wise enough to understand that I was mostly projecting my own fears on her. She was also wise enough not to listen. It is true, certainly, that she possesses a flair for languages that I do not have. (A Ph.D. in history, when not tending her son she tutors German and Latin, along with history, writing, and Hebrew.) But more important is her absolute determination that her son should know Hebrew as a mother tongue. So motivated, she jumped right in, from the first day in the hospital. She doesn’t worry about the small things, and on those rare occasions when she needs a word or is uncertain about vernacular usage, she simply uses a dictionary or finds an Israeli to ask. And at her request, I have been speaking Hebrew to Max as well.

I share this story, with her approval, because Hebrew both spoken and written is not a mere tool. It is part of the essence of Judaism, inseparable from the values it expresses and the associations it conveys. Obviously, my daughter’s solution is meant for her family and as an expression of her own deep love of Hebrew; other Jews and the educational leaders of the Jewish community will have to find other solutions. But find them we must. Without Hebrew, there is no truly serious Jewish education. As the poet Hayim Nahman Bialik stated, knowing Judaism only in translation is like kissing the bride through the veil.

Rabbi Eric H. Yoffie served as president of the Union for Reform Judaism from 1996 to 2012. He is now a writer, lecturer, and teacher, and lives with his family in Westfield, New Jersey.

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